Officials from all levels of government echoed a familiar sentiment at the grand opening of the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market’s new building on Tuesday. This space represents much more than just four walls and that familiar red paint. For the vendors, customers, and community, it’s been a gathering place since 1986, a place they’re glad to have back after a devastating fire two years ago.
“I heard many times from vendors that the market is like a family,” director of market operations Sheila Shantz said. “The ties are strong that bind us. In those early days I think we began to understand just how special and unique the relationships are that have been forged amongst all of us.”
Along with her cousin Marcus Shantz, president of market owners Mercedes Corp., Shantz expressed the company’s gratitude to everyone who helped get the market up and running a mere three days after the 2013 fire, culminating in the new building.
“It’s been almost exactly two years since we lost the old market building to a fire. That was a hard loss for all of us. It was not just a place to do business, for many of us it was a second home, a place to gather with friends and neighbors and take part in the life of our community,” she said.
Humbled by the outpouring of community support over the last two years, it was important for Marcus Shantz to give back. Mercedes Corp donated $25,000 this summer to Nutrition for Learning, which provides meals to children in need in schools across Waterloo Region. Tradesmen, consultants, and vendors came together to nearly match that number, with a silent auction during the grand opening hoping to bring the total up to $50,000.
“Our organization, we are going to feed over 18,000 children every day starting this September, which is overwhelming to all of us. And the contribution that’s coming from the market today will help to feed 50,000 children over the course of the year,” Kelly-Sue Labus, executive director of Nutrition for Learning said.
Candle holders made out of burnt timbers from the old building were given to the tradespeople who worked on the new building, market staff, and vendors at the old building as a token of appreciation.
While the building’s been open since earlier this summer, Marcus Shantz said they wanted to have a grand opening close to the anniversary of the fire once all the vendors were in place, and to recognize everyone involved with the rebuild.
“It’s a very humbling experience that we’ve had in having a fire and having the community respond to a disaster like that,” he said. “It made us mindful of a lot of things. We realized that we don’t entirely control our business or what happens to it. We understood very clearly that we’re part of a larger culture in the region. We didn’t invent farmers markets. There are farmers markets in other cities around here and really we’re benefiting from a great culture and spirit that developed way before we got into it.”
Regional Chair Ken Seiling recalled when they opened the first building, where they cut a pork sausage in lieu of a ribbon cutting. This time he and other officials cut a burlap garland with flowers. He says the post office used to be the gathering point for friends. Today, markets have taken on the role.
“Many of us come here on a regular basis, not necessarily to buy something,” Seiling said. “We often go home without things, but we come here because there’s a sense of community: you see people, there’s an interchange of people and a friendship exists here at these markets.”
He said the rebuilding of the building marks bringing a sense of community back here, where agriculture remains one of the backbones of the region’s economy.
Provincial Minister of Agriculture, Food, And Rural Affairs Jeff Leal stopped at the market to give words of congratulations before making a funding announcement at Block Three Brewing, just down the street.
“I have many fond memories of this market here in St. Jacobs,” Leal said. “When I was a child I spent quite a bit of time here. After my grandmother moved into Guelph, often my uncles would take me out and one of the great stops was right here at the St. Jacobs market, and what a great opportunity to learn about the wonderful Mennonite culture in this wonderful part of Ontario.”
Leal said the speed at which the community came together to get the displaced vendors into a temporary home, the harvest barn, and then to complete the new structure shows how important the market has become. He noted that community spirit was visible within the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation where a relief fund was set up.
“This market celebrates everything that is good, that’s grown and harvested and made right here in Ontario,” Leal said. “Ontario’s agricultural food sector is a portfolio that I’m extremely proud to represent. I take pride each day in telling people right around this province what a great economic impact the agriculture sector has. It supports over 780,000 Ontarians in jobs every day and contributes over $34 billion to Ontario’s GDP, only second to Ontario’s auto sector.”
He added local food is about more than numbers. It’s about taking pride in what we produce, supporting Ontario’s producers, processors, and vendors, but most importantly bringing community together.
“After the fire, all of us who work here and are part of it kept saying that people are more important than buildings,” Marcus Shantz said. “As much as we loved the old place, it was just a building and we’ve replaced it. The farmers’ market is the people and not the buildings. It’s the vendors and the customers and the staff who make it special.”